geezer cinema/film fatales #111: promising young woman (emerald fennell, 2020)
what they said: l.a. confidential and first cow

festival (murray lerner, 1967)

This is the twenty-seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 27 is called "Concert Movie Week".

As a bit of a cooldown after last week, let's take some time to appreciate the efforts to transport the feelings of a live event into a smaller, more personal medium. Crank up the volume and get out the pyrotechnics.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen concert movie. Here is a more focused ranked list and here is a larger compendium.

The kind of concert movie I like is just what the name suggests: a movie of a concert. I like to see the show progress ... think Stop Making Sense. I understand that some concert movies are documenting an event, that the event might be longer than a movie would be, that multiple performers might all want their moment in the sun. In those cases, I at least want to see complete performances of individual songs among the documentation of the event ... think Woodstock for the most part. I'm not a big fan of documentaries of concerts that essentially ignore the music, but I get the impulse to foreground what was happening off stage.

What I hate, though, is when a movie provides incomplete performances of individual songs. If a song is worthy of being included, and that song runs four minutes, I don't want to see only 90 seconds of that song.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Festival has two strikes against it from the start, because it lacks complete performances. Think Don't Look Back, which for me works better as a document of Dylan's tour than it does as an example of a Dylan concert.

Festival, which has footage from three separate Newport Folk Festivals (1963-5), has plenty to offer people who want to reminisce. Among the performers (in partial performances) are Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Judy Collins, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Staple Singers, Mimi and Richard Fariña, Donovan, Mike Bloomfield, and many more. But you can sit through the entire 97-minute film without seeing a complete performance of a song.

So OK, Festival at least works as a document, right? Well, yes but. The single most important cultural occurrence at those three Newport Folk Festivals came when Dylan "went electric". Festival comes in about a minute into the first of the electric songs, "Maggie's Farm", and what follows is only part of the rest of the song. Dylan and Mike Bloomfield are so fired up, even a truncated version is impressive, but it's not enough. Besides, while Festival gives a feel for what those events were like, it provides no context. You never know what year it is, which matters, especially when people in the crowd (almost always male) pontificate. And if you didn't already know the legend, all you would think of "Maggie's Farm" was that Dylan did a good job and Bloomfield sure can play guitar. The reality, which I described on Facebook as Bob Dylan opening the door while Mike Bloomfield put his boot to folk music and kicked it out that door, is missing from Festival.

So if it's enough for you to see historic performers in the 60s, either young (look at Judy Collins! look at Johnny Cash!) or old (look at Howlin' Wolf!), you'll enjoy Festival. If you want to actually experience historic performances, look elsewhere.

Festival was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature. 40 years later, Murray Lerner released The Other Side of the Mirror, a compilation of Dylan performances, from singing "With God on Our Side" with Joan Baez in 1963 and in 1964, to the cataclysmic "Maggie's Farm". Thus, we can watch Maggie in full glory:


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